Observations of an Expat: Tyranny of the Majority

“Democracy,” Winston Churchill famously said, “is the worst form of government – except for all those other forms that have been tried.”

Then there is democracy unchained, or without the restraints of the rule of law and free speech.  Also known as “the tyranny of the majority” or the “will of the people” or, perhaps, “democracy flawed.”

These are elected governments with political leaders who have harnessed to their own pursuit of power a perceived threat to the majority, or a growing, vociferous and politically motivated minority.

There are far too many examples to choose from but let’s focus on Hungary, Russia, Israel, India and the US for starters.  In each of these countries, the leaders (or wannabe leader) have won the support of the majority of the population either through lies or by allying themselves with a social movement which promotes one section of society at the expense of another.

Technically speaking, Israel is a democracy with carefully monitored and oft-held elections. Its American supporters are keen to point out that it is the only democracy in the Middle East and this makes the Israelis their only rock-solid ally in the region.

Twenty percent of Israel’s voters are Arabs. As the occupying power, Israel is also responsible for two million Palestinians in Gaza and another two million on the West Bank – none of whom have a vote.  Their rights and concerns are totally ignored by Benjamin Netanyahu because his political base is conservative Orthodox Jews. The Israeli Supreme Court has attempted to protect Arab rights. As a result, Netanyahu is beavering away at dismantling the court and its powers.

Vladimir Putin was recently re-elected President of Russia with 87.5 percent of the vote. Such a large figure is of course suspect, but most observers accept that Putin would have won regardless. He has successfully portrayed himself as the only possible leader of a nation under attack from wicked, grasping Western enemies. His answer is that the best defense is a good offense which means the pursuit of Russian imperial ambitions.

Viktor Orban has cast himself in the role of anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic saviour of ethnic Hungarians and European Judeo-Christian values. “We must state,” said Hungary’s right-wing prime minister, “that Hungarians do not want to be diverse and do not want to be mixed; we do not want our own colour, traditions and national culture to be mixed with that of others.”

To enforce these views requires centralised power verging on dictatorial. Fortunately proper democracies are more than just a simple majority vote. They consist of a complex set of checks and balances involving things such as a free press, an independent judiciary, legislative checks with a recognised political opposition, a constitution, a Bill of Rights and the rule of law. Which is why political leaders such as Putin, Modi and Orban start to attack and dismantle these checks the moment they achieve office.

Orban has stacked the courts, electoral commission, universities and media with his supporters. The Russian constitution had few checks on presidential powers. But the few that existed have been suppressed by the establishment of a corrupt oligarchical economic and political structure; total state control of the courts and justice system, a rubber-stamp parliament and an emasculated media.

India is billed as the world’s largest democracy. It is just about to start its seven-week balloting process. There have long been stresses between the Hindu Community (roughly 80 percent) and the Muslims (roughly 18 percent). For decades the country overcame the stresses with a strictly secular constitution. Narendra Modi, however, has found it politically advantageous to blatantly favour the Hindu majority at the expense of the Muslim minority.

Modi’s weapon of choice is India’s tax man. If a political opponent becomes too visible then he runs the risk of being accused of corruption and tax evasion. A number of members of the opposition Congress I Party have been accused and investigated. When they crossed the floor and joined Modi’s BJP investigations were dropped.  On the eve of the election, the Income Tax Department froze the bank accounts of Congress I.

This unchained or flawed democracy threatens to reach its apogee in a Trumpian America. The world was given a taste of it during Donald Trump’s 2016-2020 administration. Trump and his team were too disorganised the first time around to make much impact other than to divide the nation with his rhetoric – except on the issue of abortion. Donald Trump delighted evangelical Christian supporters by appointing three anti-abortion Supreme Court Justices who reversed the 1973 pro-abortion Roe v. Wade ruling. This is now facing a tsunami of opposition – mainly from women – with 69 percent favouring abortion.

If Trump wins again in 2024 he and his conservative supporters are better organised. They have a plan which has been formulated under the auspices of the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation. Contributors to what is entitled “Project 2025” are key players from his first term who have learned some of the Washington ropes and have had four years to ponder how to best use them.

The key to their plans is the implementation of what is called unitary executive theory. This is a political theory which says that the president of the United States has absolute power over the executive branch from the moment they are inaugurated. That means he has total control over all the departments of state, federal agencies and every one of the three million employees of the federal government.

It means that he can create and dissolve agencies and departments of state and hire and fire whomever he pleases. Already the US makes more political federal appointments than any other Western democracy—4,000 of them. Project 2025 proposes to sack at least 20,000 federal employees whom they suspect its authors suspect of being “deep state subversives” and replace them with Trump loyalists.

This would make it easier for a second Trump Administration to rollback climate change regulations; increase fossil fuel production; invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act; direct the Department of Justice to pursue Trump opponents in the media, politics, judiciary and academia; reverse LGBTQ, transgender, race and gender rights; encourage Christian nationalism; reduce corporation tax to 18 percent and massively increase deportations—all of which is proposed by the authors of Project 2025 and have been at least been hinted as action points by Donald Trump.

If he wins the presidency, Trump will have been democratically elected by the majority, or at least the majority of America’s Electoral College. But it will be a majority frightened into a belief that their interests are under threat and their only hope is to suppress those threats. That is the tyranny of the majority.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War” and “America Made in Britain". To subscribe to his email alerts on world affairs click here.

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  • It seems that, far from being a democracy, the USA governmental policies are now being run from Mar-a-Lago…

  • It is disturbing to see the extent to which Trump is currently able to act as a “Shadow President” and achieve his policy aims by directing the Republican majority in the House. Even Republicans who are on record as vociferously opposing him in the past now toe the line to avoid primary challenges from Trump-backed MAGA candidates. If he wins a majority of the Presidential Electoral College, and Trump-supporting Republicans win majorities in both the House and Senate, the world will find itself in a very dark place indeed. And all without ever needing to win a majority of the popular vote – all that power and the ability to override the constitutional checks and balances will likely be granted by a minority of US voters (albeit narrowly so).

  • Thank you Martin and Mohammed. Your comments are very much appreciated. I hope I was able to communicate the necessity of maintaining a solid structure of checks and balances– in the UK as well as elsewhere.

  • Martin Gray 13th Apr '24 - 2:40pm

    Maybe if we concentrated a bit more on the issues effecting people – then they wouldn’t be prone to voting for populist politicians. Too many progressive politicians are wrapped up in the middle class metropolitan university politics …Try living in a post industrial town – doing a job & earning a salary that most on here couldn’t envisage or survive on.

  • Mary Fulton 13th Apr '24 - 4:25pm

    I found this article very interesting and thought-provoking. However, I remember a particular saying from my student days which has relevance here: “if voting could change anything, they’d make it illegal.” I think that thought is very relevant today as it is clear that governments are not governing, and parliaments not legislating, in accord with what the people want, and it seems almost impossible to change that by voting. This year, for example, we will likely see Labour replace the Tories in government, and then continue with the same political and economic policies we have had to endure for decades. It is not surprising that so many people do not see the point of voting or even of registering to vote in the first place.

  • @Mary Fulton, I think a more appropriate quote in these uncertain times is one from Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” For my part, I have always told my children: “If you don’t try you will fail.”

  • Simon McGrath 13th Apr '24 - 7:29pm

    “ Technically speaking, Israel is a democracy”

    Well yes. Alas Israeli’s have elected a dreadful government but the key is they elected them. And yes it is the only democracy in the region.

  • Jenny Barnes 14th Apr '24 - 7:25am

    Israel is only a democracy if you ignore Palestinians.

  • Martin Pierce 14th Apr '24 - 8:25am

    Tom’s contributions make subscribing to LDV worth it all by themselves. Always clear-sighted and on this one I agree with the ‘even by your high standards’ comment. £100 donation to LDV on its way. Squaring the circle of letting everyone have a say but not allowing that to become ‘the tyranny of the majority’ has been discussed for centuries, as Tom says, and during Brexit the swing towards that here was one of the most disturbing features (prorogation, casting the Supreme Court as enemies of the people). I think an accepted name for the sort of democracy with checks and balances, institutions that transcend the government of the day and where a baseline of certain human, civil and political rights are guaranteed whoever is elected, is a ‘liberal democracy’. Though that name probably won’t do the case for it any good amongst Trump supporters.

  • The checks and balances are there to ensure that there are no rash decisions just because one party or group have a majority.

    If a settled majority want something to come into law and keep voting that party in, the no matter how unliberal the change is, eventually the checks and balances will allow the change to take place. For example in a country with a written constitution eventually if enough people want the change the constitution can be amended.

    It is not about giving the minority a veto.

  • Martin Gray 14th Apr '24 - 9:28am

    @Martin… ‘Liberal Democracies’ have embraced globalisation & neoliberal economics . No fundamental change for those at the bottom just perpetual struggle.
    That’s why you end up with the likes of Trump , and millions voting to leave the EU – nothing ever changes ..

  • Nick Collins 14th Apr '24 - 9:34am

    @ Tom Arms & Mary Fulton

    II think another quote, again from Edmund Burke I believe, is also apposite

    “No-one made a bigger mistake than the man (today a more gender neutral noun would be appropriate) who did nothing because he could only do a little.”

  • SteveTrevethan 14th Apr '24 - 10:52am

    Might some of the causes of increasing authoritarianism include:

    1) Lack of objective, analytical reporting and investigating by the main stream media, not least the B. B. C.?

    2) Allegedly centrist to left governments applying neoliberal/austerity theories and practices which benefit the wealthy/powerful to the disadvantages of the rest?

    3) The use of neo- Leninist* attitudes which include dogma blindness/scotoma which, for but one example, ignores 25% permanent child hunger/starvation and obsesses about dodgy to non-existent fiscal rules based on doubtful data?

    4) An authoritarian, at least since 1988, state education set up which concentrates on what to think and avoids/eschews the teaching-learning of how to think analytically?

    * Unless you already have, please read « Late Soviet Britain » by Aby Innes.

  • Doesn’t all this point towards the irresponsibility of the leadership in the Labour Party, in obstructing the approach of Proportional Representation? PR, when we get it, will surely make it more difficult for any Johnson or Trump to seize and abuse Parliamentary power, won’t it?

  • @Martin Pierce. Thank you on behalf of LDV and myself. Money and praise are both much appreciated.
    As for Steve Trevethan’s comments about the media, I agree that the media is an important pillar of a liberal democracy and that at the moment it is not performing the traditional investigative role of speaking truth to power or shining a light into the darkness. I do not agree, however, that that is the job of BBC. as a publicly-funded organization , their role is to provide unbiased, politically neutral reporting. If they swung too far behind one political position they would rightly be accused of bias and when the opposing party gained power would face a severe backlash. No, it is the job of the independently-financed traditional media to show the way with investigative journalism. They are failing to do so because their commercial base has been destroyed by the internet. Social media with its plethora of lies, misinformation and conspiracy theories have moved to fill the political vacuum. More must be done to protect the traditional media and control the misinformation propagated by social media platforms.

  • @ Roger Lake. PR would be a big help towards protecting minority rights and liberal democracy. But it is not the answer on its own. A free and active press, free speech, right of assembly, independent judiciary. the rule of law, and respect for “natural laws” are also important pillars that need constant and vigilant protection from power-seeking populist politicians.

  • Steve Trevethan 14th Apr '24 - 5:09pm

    Attached is a detailed article on the role of our main stream media and their role in our democracy, with special reference to the conflict focused on Gaza.


  • Peter Hirst 19th Apr '24 - 3:21pm

    The item missing from your otherwise excellent article, Tom is an informed electorate. This underpins a functioning democracy. Without it people are more easily manipulated, misinformed and bribed. Education used to be our prime policy area and part of this is informing students about the electoral process, managing information, forms of democracy and the importance of free speech, human rights and the right to protest.

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